Leeds University

New fully funded PhD studentship available: Impacts of peatland pipe blocking: supporting future peatland restoration best practice

Impacts of peatland pipe blocking: supporting future peatland restoration best practice

Fully Funded PhD Studentship

Start date - Spring 2017

Deadline for applications: 11 November 2016

Supervisors: Professor Joseph Holden (University of Leeds), Professor Martin Evans (Manchester University), Professor Pippa Chapman (University of Leeds), Dr Jonathan Walker (Moors for the Future Partnership)

Funding details
The studentship covers full UK/EU tuition fees and a tax-free maintenance stipend of £14,000 per year for 3 years.  There will also be some funding for additional project costs.  This studentship is open to UK/EU applicants. Internationally fee-rated students are not eligible to apply.

Project description

We are seeking an enthusiastic and able student to undertake a new research project examining the impact of blocking eroding pipes (connected cavities) in peatlands.

Many peatlands contain natural connected cavities which can contribute large amounts of water (Smart et al., 2013) and carbon to stream systems (Holden et al., 2012a; Dinsmore et al., 2011). Many of these pipe systems erode and are dynamic (Holden et al., 2012b) and can often collapse leading to gully development. Piping appears to be more prevalent in degrading peat systems, particularly in blanket peatlands that are subject to artificial drainage or erosion (Holden, 2005). As funding is being spent to restore many degraded peatlands, there are questions about how to deal with pipe erosion systems and what impacts restoration activity has on these pipe systems. The peat around pipes may also have a different structure and permeability which may affect the outcome of pipe blocking work (Cunliffe et al., 2013).

As part of a major peatland restoration programme called MoorLIFE 2020 operating in the Peak District and South Pennines of England, a trial will be set up by the PhD student to study pipe blocking impacts that inform future best practice for restoration work. The project will be done in close collaboration with Moors for the Future who are co-funding the studentship and can provide the groundworks to support the project.

Some of the key components of work would include:

  • Literature review on the current state of knowledge on peat pipes and their role in degradation in   blanket bog systems.
  • Design a research project to evidence the impacts of different types and contexts of pipe blocking on:
    • Water flow paths and rates of flow
    • Sediment and dissolved organic carbon release
    • Water tables
    • Other relevant factors
  • Outline what the findings of the research mean for future practice in peatland restoration programmes.
  • Contribute to land owner and manager knowledge exchange events and materials.
  • Contribute to larger annual reports for the funders of the wider MoorLIFE2020 programme.

This is an exciting opportunity for a student interested in undertaking cutting edge science that delivers an applied outcome within a wider programme of work. Applicants should have a minimum of an 2i honours degree in Geography or a related area and a Masters degree in a relevant subject would be an advantage.  The student should be able to work in challenging peatland terrain, have a valid UK driving licence and have an interest in hydrology, soils water quality and carbon cycling.


Cunliffe, A., Baird, A.J., Holden, J. (2013). Hydrological hotspots in peatlands: spatial variability in hydraulic conductivity around natural soil pipes. Water Resources Research, 49, 5342-5354 DOI: 10.1002/wrcr.20435
 Smart, R.P., Holden, J., Dinsmore, K., Baird A.J., Billett M.F., Chapman, P.J. and Grayson, R. (2013) The dynamics of natural pipe hydrological behaviour in blanket peat. Hydrological Processes, 27, 1523-1534. DOI: 10.1002/hyp.9242 
 Holden, J., Smart, R.P., Dinsmore, K., Baird, A., Billett, M.F., and Chapman, P.J. (2012a) Natural pipes in blanket peatlands: major point sources for the release of carbon to the aquatic system. Global Change Biology, 18, 3568-3580. doi: 10.1111/gcb.12004
 Holden, J., Smart, R.P., Dinsmore, K., Baird A.J., Billett M.F., Chapman, P.J. (2012b) Morphological change of natural pipe outlets in blanket peat. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, 37, 109-118. doi: 10.1002/esp.2239
Dinsmore, K. J., Smart, R. P., Billett, M. F., Holden, J., Baird, A. J., Chapman, P. J. (2011) Greenhouse gas losses from peatland pipes: a major pathway for loss to the atmosphere? Journal of Geophysical Research 116, G03041, doi:10.1029/2011JG001646.
 Holden, J. (2005) Controls of soil pipe frequency in blanket peat uplands. Journal of Geophysical Research,110, F010002, DOI: 10.1029/2004JF000143.

To Apply
Please submit a PhD application to the School of Geography as outlined here by 11 November 2016.

The hydrological function of organo-mineral soils in downstream flood risk

Fully-funded NERC Industrial CASE studentship

Supervisors: Professor Joseph HoldenProfessor Mike Kirkby, Jean Johnston (Natural England), Alistair Crowle (Natural England)
Contact email: j.holden(at)leeds.ac.uk
Project partner(s): Natural England 
Start date: 1 October 2017
Closing date for applications: 9 January 2017

Eligibility: UK applicants only or applicants who meet the RC UK studentship residency requirements http://www.rcuk.ac.uk/documents/documents/termsconditionstraininggrants-pdf/ (section 43-45)

We seek to understand hydrological processes operating in upland organo-mineral soils and how their management and vegetation cover influences river flow peaks. This novel field, lab and modelling project will expand our knowledge on the function and hydrology of upland soils which are of high conservation value. The project will directly provide urgently needed management decision-making evidence on upland soil management for flood peak reduction. Organo-mineral soils cover around 20 % of the UK, and are particularly common in upland areas with the main types being stagnohumic gleys and acid brown earths. Unlike peatlands, the function and hydrology of organo-mineral soils is globally very poorly understood with major gaps in the literature. These soils typically underlie upland heathland and grasslands in areas with high conservation value. It is unclear whether these soils are dominated by throughflow (and what their typical permeability range is), infiltration-excess overland flow or saturation-excess overland flow in different topographic contexts and rainfall events. It is also unclear how management of organo-mineral soils impacts their role in runoff generation.

There is an urgent need for evidence on ‘nature-based’ flood management solutions, particularly in UK uplands - source areas for the UK’s major rivers. Recent modelling work on peatlands by researchers at the University of Leeds has shown that controlling overland flow velocities by changing the surface cover conditions in key spatially identifiable parts of the catchment can play an important role in reducing flood peaks (by up to 20 % for some rainfall events) (Gao et al., 2016). However, we do not have data from organo-mineral soils, which are likely to function quite differently to peat, to inform such modelling and so practitioners have limited basis for upland management decisions which may benefit those downstream at risk of flooding.

The above issues will be tackled through a combined monitoring, experimental and modelling approach involving:

  •  Measuring and determining the dominant hydrological pathways (e.g. overland flow, subsurface flow) through monitoring of flow volumes / rates though and over stagnohumic gleys and acid brown earths (controlling for slope position using the topographic index), moisture content & water-table depths;
  • Permeability tests to measure the hydraulic conductivity (Leeds have a novel permeameter system allowing 25 soil samples to be tested simultaneously, allowing high throughput)
  • Experimental overland flow velocity measurements by supplying water to plots and measuring the velocities for different slope angles, flow depths and vegetation conditions (Holden et al., 2008)

The above three approaches will be used on areas of hillslope in Cumbria to test for differences in hydrological function related to soil condition and surface cover. The design will incorporate soils that have been assessed by Natural England to be in different states of degradation including high quality Atlantic Heath (dense dwarf shrubs with an understory of mosses), poor Atlantic heath, good acid grassland and acid grassland that has heavy grazing. The three field and laboratory steps above will then enable the student to:

  •  Modify a new spatially-distributed version of TOPMODEL recently developed by the University of Leeds (Gao et al., 2015).
  •  Use the model to test different spatial organo-mineral land-cover scenarios to test optimal solutions to reduce downstream flow peaks.

Potential for high impact outcome
Flooding in northern England derived from uplands in December 2015 alone caused >£2 billion in losses. By providing evidence to demonstrate how, where and by what scale, upland soil management can reduce flood peaks downstream the project will directly impact policy & land management practice (e.g. changed land management in locations identified by the modelling). There is a lack of information about organo-mineral soils and their functions and how they respond to different types of management. Thus the research will yield highly publishable material and leading output. The research will be highly publishable in the international litrature as so little is known about organo-mineral soils. The work will directly inform Natural England’s understanding of grazing management impacts and this will be of importance for policy development and potentially influence future agricultural payment schemes.

Influential organisations beyond the CASE partners will benefit immensely.  Natural England, SNH, Environment Agency, Natural Resources Wales and National Park Authorities must assess and protect upland landscapes dominated by organo-mineral soils. Other charitable bodies such as RSPB and Wildlife Trusts, plus water companies, who often own or have influence over upland catchments, and those at risk of flooding downstream are all potential beneficiaries so the research nmay have impacts on those organisations.

The student will be part of the River Basins Processes and Management cluster in the School of Geography and water(at)leeds which is the world’s largest interdisciplinary university-based water research centre. water(at)leedshosts 140 PhD students. These groups provide access to routine training through seminars, structured feedback on project ideas and technical training. The successful PhD student will have access to a broad spectrum of training workshops that range from technical through to generic skills building. The supervisory team will provide training on soil hydrological processes and modelling.

Natural England will host the student for 3 months to ensure that the student gains experience of practical and policy implications of their work and in the functioning and structure of a government agency. The student will be able to explore the vast archive of ecological and soils datasets on file and gain ground experience of habitat and landscape condition assessments and management decision-making, upland conservation decision-making and practical constraints. The student will be able to undertake placements at headquarters in Peterborough with supervisor Crowle and at the Kendal office with supervisor Johnston. The student will be exposed to two different multidisciplinary settings; a co-ordination/policy environment and a regional field assessment and management environment.

A programme of personal, professional and career training will undertaken via a university-wide programme supported by dedicated hubs offering discipline-specific programmes, delivered by academics and researcher development staff with subject specialisms in water (e.g. MSc module in hillslope hydrology delivered by Holden), soils & plant ecology. Peer-reviewed paper writing, international conference presentations and social media use will also be part of the student's training

Student profile:
The student should have a strong interest in environmental problems, fieldwork, hydrology and soils, and should be motivated to undertake hydrological modelling experiments. It is expected that the student will have a relevant masters degree or equivalent experience. The student should have a valid driving licence for use in the UK.

CASE Partner:
The proposal has been funded by NERC in open competition under their Industrial CASE PhD scheme with Natural England providing extra funding towards research costs and training from the partner in practical and policy matters.

Funding and how to apply:
This is a fully-funded 4 year studentship providing full UK/EU level fees and a tax-free maintenance stipend of approximately £14,500pa.  To apply, please submit an application for study and the required supporting documents listed here by 9 January 2017

Gao, J., Holden, J. Kirkby, MJ. (2016) The impact of land-cover change on flood peaks in peatland basins. Water Resources Research doi: 10.1002/2015WR017667

Gao, J., Holden, J. and Kirkby, M.J. (2015) A distributed TOPMODEL for modelling impacts of land-cover change on river flow in upland peatland catchments. Hydrological Processes, 29, 2867-2879. DOI: 10.1002/hyp.10408

Grayson, R., Holden, J. and Rose, R. (2010) Long-term change in storm hydrographs in response to peatland vegetation change. Journal of Hydrology, 389, 336-343.

Holden, J., Kirkby, M.J., Lane, S.N., Milledge, D.J., Brookes, C.J., Holden, V. and McDonald, A.T. (2008) Factors affecting overland flow velocity in peatlands. Water Resources Research, 44, W06415, doi: 10.1029/2007WR006052.